Colour, Space and Abstraction

Black Ashop Moor. Mixed media painting on paper. 15x10ins. Although there is some sense of space in this work, I didn’t deliberately concentrate on trying to paint it as I worked. Grey and mauve predominate and those colours themselves often suggest distance.

In paintings I completed recently I’ve had to think more about depicting a sense of space while, at the same time, using more of the abstract elements that feature in my work. Most paintings that attempt some kind of realism also, in many cases, attempt to depict space in some way. This is the difficulty in abstract or semi-abstract work: making decisions about whether to make a feature of the picture plane or how far back to push it. Representing space is one of the most difficult aspects of painting and artists have come up with many different methods of showing or implying it in their work.

In my own paintings I don’t worry too much about how I represent space, but I feel it does have to be represented in some way. In art that is completely abstract, there is no real need to portray a sense of depth, The flat picture plane aids the artist in his selection of colour, shape and texture. Even some semi-abstract works pay scant heed to conventions of representing depth. In my own paintings one can hopefully get some kind of a sense of space; this is a deliberate thing, although if the painting works without it I don’t worry too much. I don’t set out to paint in a particularly abstract way, or even strive for complete realism. I know my work has abstract qualities and I often deliberately stress those in particular paintings. Dots and splatters of paint often suggest rocks, stones and scree, broken or crumbling dry stone walls; wheels ruts and tracks are indicated by meandering lines. All these elements are abstract in nature and I’m aware they don’t necessarily have much to do with a representation of space when I paint them.

Space is often implied by colour and by using certain hues a sense of recession can be hinted at. In the painting Moorland Towards Rowarth shown below, most of the colour towards the horizon is deliberately kept to a blue, grey or mauve, implying that the landscape is receding into the distance. This, along with the fact that the colour in that area has been applied in thin bands that could be either hills or clouds, and the foreground, too, is little more than an abstract area of daubs, lines and dots, implies a sense of distance.

Moorland Towards Rowarth. Mixed media on board. 20x16ins. By blocking out the top third of the painting you’re left with a completely abstract image of dots, lines and daubs that are merely suggestive of landscape elements.

Painting an abstract or semi-abstract work is just as difficult as painting a representational one and as much thought goes into their design, composition and execution as any other piece, if not more. Everything has to work in a much more coherent way. The contiguity of line, shape and colour needs to be considered extremely carefully if the work is to be successful.

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The Seasonal Palette

I know some artists who never change the colours on their palette. They squeeze out a dollop of colour from a tube of every colour they possess and don’t think about varying the colours much from painting to painting. But selecting colour carefully before starting a work can alter your perception and interpretation (and therefore that of the viewer) of a subject by adding a bit of a twist to your normal way of thinking. Introducing a new or unusual colour into you palette can alter our impression of a painting and transform the way we understand it how we feel about it.

Allotments at Langtoft, November. A work painted using my basic Winter palette with the addition of violet.

Personally, my palette is made up of five colours – white, black, a blue, a yellow and a red. These are changed or added to according to the season and/or the subject. Winter consists of black and white, Prussian blue, alizarin crimson and yellow ochre. Sometimes I’ll paint with just those five, at other times I’ll augment them with raw umber, some kind of purple or mauve, perhaps Naples yellow or Indian red. Very occasionally I change the Prussian blue for cerulean. I hardly ever use Ultramarine or cobalt blue unless I’m painting abroad as I find them too ‘Mediterranean’. Prussian blue gives a lovely shade that is more typical of British skies even in Summer.

Once Spring arrives I’ll start to change the colours on my palette. I add a green, usually sap, sometimes chromium oxide, and perhaps add cadmium yellow and, depending on what I’m painting, I may decide to change the umber from raw to burnt. The only real change to this palette for the Summer months is to substitute alizarin for cadmium red.

Red Field. Painted in Summer with cadmium red and Naples yellow in the palette.

Autumn brings quite a few additions. I tend to keep the burnt umber and add Naples yellow, burnt sienna, sometimes Indian red or light red too, swap back the alizarin crimson instead of the cadmium and sometimes use raw sienna instead of yellow ochre. These latter colours are very similar in hue but the ochre tends to be slightly more opaque, depending on the manufacturer.

Of course, these decisions aren’t written in stone. Sometimes I go rogue and throw in a colour I don’t use very much just for the hell of it: Payne’s grey, Hooker’s green or viridian, lemon yellow or Cadmium orange. Moreover, the palettes I’ve listed are strictly for oils, acrylics and gouache paints are something else and have their own set of guidelines which are much less rigorous!